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Does prison work?

In this video, Professor Joe Sim questions whether the prison system meets its stated aims to rehabilitate, deter and incapacitate offenders.
Some people will argue that the prison is about rehabilitation. Others will argue it’s about deterrence. I think from a critical perspective, the objective of the prison has always been about the infliction of pain and punishment. And critics would say that if you look at the objectives, the liberal objectives of prison, they don’t really rehabilitate, given the number of individuals who reoffend when they come out. They don’t deter, because that link between the rate of imprisonment and the rate of crime is spurious. Most people will not engage in criminal behaviour if they think they’re going to get caught, rather than if they think they’re going to go to prison.
So in other words, if you do “When did you last break the law?” And I guess with some people in this room as well, or maybe all of us in the room, apart from respectable criminologists - “When did you last break the law?” - most people have done something in their lives, where arguably they could finish up inside, or at least finish up with some kind of penalty from the criminal justice system. So the idea of individual deterrence and the idea of general deterrence is problematic. The idea of the prison, people will say, incapacitates dangerous offenders. Well, that’s true up to a point. But it depends how you define dangerousness.
And also, when you look at particular crimes in society, such as violence against women, then arguably the prison doesn’t necessarily incapacitate all of the dangerous people, all of the time. So therefore you come back to the question of, well, what is the prison for? And arguably it’s for the infliction of pain and punishment on a small group of offenders who actually get caught and who are processed through the criminal justice system. This isn’t an argument. And this is what politicians come up with time and time again, no matter what political party they’re in. If you’re a critic of the prison system or the criminal justice system, they will argue you’re pro-crime and anti-victim, which is really offensive.
What is penal abolitionism? Well, it’s a sociological, philosophical, criminological and political position which developed in the late 1960s, although it has its roots much further back in time, in terms of the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. But it emerged in the late 1960s as a social movement, and as a kind of political and penological philosophy, to challenge the very existence of the prison system. And to develop a whole series of policies, and practices, and philosophies which try to move the debate away from traditional ideas about imprisonment and start to argue for a whole series of new philosophies with regard to dealing with the offender.
For example, talking about restitution and reparation as opposed to punishment, is just one example of that. Talking about decarceration and taking out of the prison system a whole range of groups and offenders who should not be in prison. Now that would be very similar to a liberal position as well, except abolitionists would go a great deal further. And they would say that actually the prison system, as it functions at the minute, does very, very little, if anything, to protect us. And therefore, we need to abolish it in its current form and replace it with a system and a philosophy which is actually going to enhance the society, for those few individuals who do need to be confined.
Abolitionists would also say - certainly in its 1970s variety - abolitionists would also say that if you look at the prison system, it contains and regulates those people on the economic margins of society and punishes them. It doesn’t punish the powerful. Bankers very rarely finish up in prison, as we know, and yet their criminality is extensive. So it’s about actually thinking about crime as well - what crime actually means, what social harm actually means. Who are the dangerous? And who presents dangers to our society? And also recognising what the prison abolitionists said in the 1970s, recognising that the prison ideologically distracts attention away from corporate criminality.
So we focus on those individuals - the 85,000 or whatever - who are in prison in England and Wales at the moment. And in doing so, that helps to distract attention away from those who are committing absolutely outrageous crimes against social order and the wider society. Corporate crime, white collar crime, environmental crime, et cetera. Underpinning abolitionism is that idea of social justice and social inequalities, focusing on social inequalities, and focusing in on the whole debate about powerlessness, dispossession and the way that those are wrapped up in a society now which is immensely unequal and immensely problematic for a whole range of different groups. Seems to me, though, that social justice demands empathy, and empathy demands self-reflection and a self-awareness.
And I’m not convinced that the powerful have got that - [LAUGHS] - in this society at the moment. Quite the reverse, in many respects. What would we do with the most serious offenders? Would we still put them in prison? Well, that’s become, and is the $64,000 question in many respects. Abolitionists would say that the Barlinnie Special Unit in Glasgow - Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, the C-wing at Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight, and Grendon Underwood, opened in 1962 and still there - these three institutions took what are regarded as the most dangerous individuals in Scotland and in England, and are changing them.
But the way that they’re changing them is, they’re changing them by getting the men themselves to think about the crimes that they committed, to engage in psychotherapy, and to, in a sense, deconstruct their masculinity. And so they changed. I saw it in my own experience at Barlinnie’s Special Unit. I was in Grendon Underwood last summer, doing a day school there. And the prisoners talked about changing. Now, they had nothing to gain from that, because they’re doing very, very long sentences, for a start. And secondly - and what was really interesting about it - was they talked about that process of change, doing hard time.
It wasn’t an easy option for them, for men who had engaged in some serious crimes of violence, many of whom lived their lives through a heavy masculinity and heavy masculine response to the world, which often involved violence and culminated in some dreadful, dreadful crimes, which the men themselves recognised. But they talked about the process of change. That was underpinned and reinforced by the philosophy of the institution, the staffing of the institution - the staff there were really into facilitating that change - and the governor of Grendon Underwood doing a remarkable job and ensuring that that institution is a kind of shining beacon of light within the criminal justice system.
Those institutions provide a very interesting philosophical, political, and practical solution to how you would deal with dangerous offenders. But what’s very interesting about them - Barlinnie and Parkhurst have closed - Grendon has never been extended. Why is that? Why don’t they get extended? And it seems to me that one or the answers is - or maybe the answer is - is that they hold a mirror up to the conventional criminal justice system. And they say, in a sense, these really dangerous individuals - in public consciousness, in the tabloids, they’re animals in inverted commas - they can change. The really important thing about those individuals to remember is most of them are going to get out at some point.
So what do we want? These individuals coming back out, not rehabilitated, not reformed? Or do we want them coming back out reformed and rehabilitated from those institutions? I would say that the philosophy and practices, from my own experience in - I wasn’t in Parkhurst C-wing but I know the psychologist that ran it - but in Barlinnie Special Unit and Grendon Underwood, that those philosophies and practices do provide an alternative vision. A vision of abolitionist alternatives which deal with the worst of the worst, in the conventional sense, and change them.
Rates of penal incarceration around the world have reached record levels and in England and Wales, where there is the highest prison population in western Europe, prison is clearly the punishment of choice. But does the prison work?
In this video, Joe Sim, Professor of Criminology at Liverpool John Moores University, questions whether the prison system meets its stated aims to rehabilitate, deter and incapacitate offenders and makes the case for a more humane and effective system.
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Crime, Justice and Society

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